By Ian Duggan
Construction of the Wintergarden glasshouses in Auckland Domain was initiated during World War I. The Temperate (or Cool) House was erected first, between 1916 and 1921, for the year-round display of flowering plants. Although planned at the same time, the Tropical House was not added until the late 1920s. Both houses, designed by leading architects William Henry Gummer and Charles Reginald Ford, are described as a pair of barrel-vaulted steel and glass structures, separated by an enclosed courtyard.[i] Still standing and a popular destination today, the Wintergarden glasshouses came under threat by aerial bombardment in 1937, though not from some wartime enemy. Instead it was from Santa Claus, parachuting in to the Domain to deliver presents. Besides the potential damage to the facilities, this story could also have spelled the messy end of Santa, in front of hundreds of children.
In early November 1937, Auckland City Council granted a request from Farmers Trading Company Ltd to allow the landing of a parachutist, attired as Father Christmas, in the Domain. Nevertheless, as the Auckland Star noted, it was “reported to the council” – though it is unclear from the article, by whom – that it actually had no power to stop anyone landing on the Domain anyway.[ii] Advertisements began appearing in newspapers soon after; “Real life Santa Claus will jump from his ‘plane and come down by parachute”. “When will he be here?” the advertisements asked, and perhaps more ominously in hindsight, “Where will he land?”.
Initiated in 1934, by 1937 the Farmers Christmas parade had already become an important event on Auckland’s calendar. However, the founder and general manager of Farmers, Robert Laidlaw, was already keen on adding something that would deliver more of a splash, devising a somewhat more newsworthy method for Santa’s arrival. According to the 2011 book “Man for Our Time: Robert Laidlaw, The Founder of Farmers”, his initial intention was to have Santa parachute into Auckland Harbour, to be picked up by a speedboat. The advertising manager, however, was more circumspect, worrying that Santa would be smothered by the parachute before the boat could reach him. As an alternative, Laidlaw suggested landing at the Domain. At first, the Council forbade the event, worrying that it might endanger the lives of the spectators.[iii] Nevertheless, they soon acquiesced, with the jump set for 20 November.
When the day had passed, the landing was labelled as “a narrow escape”, as the parachutist – George ‘Johnny’ Sellars – was reported to have barely missed one of the glasshouses. The incident was reported in a number of paper, thus:
“Jumping out of an aeroplane when it was only 1000 feet above the Auckland Domain on Saturday morning, a well-known parachutist, Mr G. W. Sellars, had a narrow escape from serious injury when he was able to sway his parachute just in time to avoid crashing through the glass roof of part of the Winter Garden. As it was, he landed heavily in a small garden plot beside a concrete path, and jarred himself considerably… Mr Sellars was to land on the outer domain as Father Christmas, and was then to help in the distribution of toys on the ground… The aeroplane was so low that the spectators, of whom there were several thousands on nearby banks, were able to distinguish the parachutist’s form very clearly as he stood on the wing before jumping off. There was a fairly strong south-west-erly wind at 1000 feet, and this immediately blew Mr Sellars from the direction he intended to take. Then, as he came down to the shelter of the surrounding trees, the still air caused him to drop more quickly and he landed very heavily. While the parachute was falling, Mr Sellars could be seen vigorously attempting to counteract the effect of the wind and so to land on level ground. He obviously saw the danger of falling into the Winter Garden, and fought to swing the parachute away from it. Until he was within a few yards of the roof, however, it seemed almost certain that he was going to fall on the glass, and it was only on the last few seconds that he was able to avoid it.”. [iv]
So Sellars avoided collision, but where did he land? The story continues:
“He [Sellars] then disappeared from the view of the spectators and fell into the garden patch between the two hot-houses. Only a few moments before two gardeners had been bedding plants there, and by the time Mr Sellars had disentangled himself from his parachute and hundreds of children and adults had dashed up to see what had happened, the garden was almost wrecked. Mr Sellars meanwhile had found that his Father Christmas beard had been twisted awry by the fall, and he limped into shelter to fix it before returning to help with the gift distribution—which he did, in spite of his nerveracking experience.”[v]
While this contemporary report outlines his landing in a garden, a later account from the book “Man for Our Time” giving Robert Laidlaw’s perspective provided a slightly different, dramatized version of the near collision and landing: “Robert held his breath. Santa was heading on a collision course with the Wintergarden glasshouses… As Robert watched the spectacle play out before him a single thought raced through his mind: ‘I’m going to be the first person to kill Santa Claus’”. This account gives a different landing spot, stating “Santa flew over the roof missing the glass by inches and seconds later there was a tremendous splash from behind the buildings. He had landed in the middle of the lily pond”.[vi] This report, while certainly adding to the mythology, should perhaps be taken with grain of salt, given the landing area differs from that in the contemporary accounts, while the date of the incident was also given incorrectly there.
Regardless, Sellars himself denied he was in any such danger, disputing the newspaper reports, stating that the aeroplane was flying at an altitude of about 2000 feet, and that he was capable of avoiding the glass house at any time during the descent:
“My landing on the thinly-wooded slope below the Outer Domain was made purposely” said Mr. Sellars. “The dense crowds on the banks and in the centre of the ground made it seemingly impossible for me to land without injuring somebody—perhaps a child. Furthermore, I was not injured in the slightest by the fall, which, contrary to the report, was one of the lightest I have ever made. By spilling air from the parachute, thus increasing the speed of the descent, or by allowing the ‘chute to guide me over the glasshouse, I had it within my power to evade the glasshouse easily. There was not, at any time, the slightest danger“.[vii]
So, Sellars claimed he was never in any real danger. But was he a source that could be trusted? Hundreds of newspaper reports can be found on Sellars’ parachuting exploits through the mid- to late-1930s, as at this time he was something of a New Zealand celebrity. Do these suggest he would provide an honest self-appraisal?
Well, no serious injury was sustained during this jump, as he parachuted – again dressed as Santa – only one week later at an air pageant at Te Kuiti.[viii] However, he did have a tendency to play down his near misses. In June 1937, for example, at an event held at Wigram, Sellars stepped out on to the wing ready to make his jump: “to his horror, he saw that the pilot chute, which draws out the main parachute, was issuing from the pack and streaming behind in the slip stream. Realising the danger of the parachute becoming tangled in the tail of the aeroplane, Sellars quickly jumped, and was fortunate enough to fall clear and descend safely”.[ix] Following up with the press, however, he – in familiar fashion – stated he was never in any real danger: “There was no question of any possibility of fatal results to my jump”, he declared, followed by a statement of his belief that his parachute apparently had been tampered with.[x]
A year earlier, in July 1936, Sellars landed in the Manukau Harbour, and was found standing up to his armpits in a creek, before his timely rescue by rowing boat. In his retelling of this experience, he said he was dragged under the water by the unopened parachute, but he unfastened the harness and regained his feet. It was stated he was lucky he did not land in the deepest part of the creek or in the mangroves.[xi] This is especially true, given his admission in other sources that he was unable to swim.[xii] His inability to swim also provides another good reason why it might not have been a great idea for Sellars’ Santa to have descend into Auckland Harbour rather than the Domain.
So who was this parachuting Santa, W.G. Sellars?
George Sellars was born at Green Island, Dunedin, educated at Balclutha District High School, and started a career as a railway fireman.[xiii] He took up flying in November 1931, and was reported to be an airman who was not troubled by superstition – he made his first aeroplane flight on Friday the 13th that year.[xiv] Influenced by watching several parachute descents by Flying Officer J.S. “Scotty” Fraser, Sellars decided to become a professional parachutist. In 1935 he passed the Royal New Zealand Air Force test at Wigram aerodrome, becoming only the second aviator to pass, and only the first after Fraser.[xv]
Widely reported in the papers, a number of incidents occurred during Sellars’ career besides the Wintergardens miss and near drownings. For example, in February 1936, making his first descent at a pageant at the Hood aerodrome, Masterton, Sellars landed in a tree. Not able to avoid it, he landed on the top branch, fully ninety feet above the ground. It was reported that he was fortunately not injured, but it took him a fair amount of time and patience to untangle the parachute. Sellars was said to have been given a “rousing sendoff when he gamely went aloft for his second jump”, but on this occasion he also missed the landing site and came to settle in an orchard a few hundred yards from the hangar.[xvi]
Unperturbed, in July 1936, Sellars – against his own better judgment – undertook a descent at Mangere, Auckland, in a heavy downpour of rain, with 45-mile per hour wind speeds at ground level. Although he maneuverered his parachute so that he set down in the middle of the landing field, he was unable to release himself: “lying helpless on his back, he was towed by the ‘chute for about two hundred yards before he could unfasten the buckle and let it go. The empty pack on his shoulders protected him, however, and although both he and the ‘chute got plastered in mud neither suffered any worse damage”.[xvii]
On yet another occasion, at Carterton, he was caught in some high-tension power lines.[xix] However, he was involved in his most serious accident to this point in January 1937, when making a descent at Otaki Beach. Carried by strong winds, he was thrown violently against the vertical face of a sandhill, and was completely knocked out by the impact. Sellars did not regain consciousness for two hours, “and when he did he was surprised to find himself in bed, a doctor and a representative of the police standing by the bedside. All he could remember about the parachute jump was the approach of a sandhill. Apart from a headache, Mr Sellars suffered no ill-effects”.[xx] Unsurprisingly, it was reported that year that no insurance company in New Zealand will accept him as a risk.[xxi] These stories are but a few among a variety of mishaps reported. Nevertheless, Sellars did have his successes also. For example, he attained the Dominion record of more than 7000 feet for a parachute drop[xxii], which was not broken until 1951.[xxiii]
Luck soon began to run out for Sellars, however. An ominous warning came during a breakfast encounter in early May 1938, when a woman – not knowing who he was – declared: “I see this fool Sellars has been jumping out of an aeroplane with his parachute again. What a fool of a man he is. He ought to know that he will do it once too often and kill himself. You mark my words, he’s done it often enough now; he won’t get away with it much longer.”[xxiv]
In May 1938, he got away with it one last time, landing on the steel roof of a car at an event at Mangere, after leaping from 1500 ft. On this occasion he escaped uninjured, apparently without a bruise; the car itself was hit with such force that the body was dented.[xxv] But soon after, in July, the prediction, and sadly Sellars, came to pass.
Sellars fell to his death on 2 July 1938, approximately seven months after the Wintergardens incident, before a thousand people at the Westport Aero Club’s pageant, and just a few days after he made his 200th descent.[xxvi] His was the third parachuting death in New Zealand at that time, the previous one coming two years earlier – that of his initial inspiration, “Scotty” Fraser.[xxvii] Sellars was described at the time of his death as a single man, aged only 28.[xxviii]
[ii] News of the Day. Auckland Star, 2 November 1937, P6
[iii] Hunter, Ian (2011). Man for Our Time: Robert Laidlaw, The Founder of Farmers. Hunter Publishing.
[iv] A Narrow Escape. Ashburton Guardian, 22 November 1937, P4
[vi] Hunter, Ian (2011). Man for Our Time: Robert Laidlaw, The Founder of Farmers. Hunter Publishing. ISBN 9781927181003.
[vii] Reprot Denied. Auckland Star, 22 November 1937, P8
[viii] The Air Pageant, King Country Chronicle, 29 November 1937, P5
[ix] Parachute Thrill. Evening Star, 24 June 1937, P10
[x] No Real Danger. Evening Star, 25 June 1937, P8
[xi] Parachutist Makes a Wet Landing, Northern Advocate, 13 July 1936, P6
[xii] Parachute Jumping To-morrow. Manawatu Times, 19 December 1936, P7
[xiii] Parachutist Killed. Press, 4 July 1938, P10
[xiv] Local and General, New Zealand Herald, 2 January 1936, P8
[xv] Parachute Test. Press, 20 June 1935, P17
[xvi] Landed in a Tree, Wairarapa Daily Times, 2 March 1936, P4
[xvii] Dragged in Mud. Auckland Star, 7 July 1936, P15
[xviii] Parachutist Injured. New Zealand Hearald, 30 August 1937, P10
[xix] Parachute Tragedy. Evening Star, 4 July 1938, P7
[xx] Local and General. Manawatu Herald. 18 January 1937, P2
[xxi] Art of Parachute Jumping. Evening Star, 22 October 1937, P3
[xxii] Parachutist Killed. Press, 4 July 1938, P10
[xxiii] Press, 30 January 1951, P8
[xxiv] Otago Daily Times, 13 May 1938, P8
[xxv] Struck Car. Auckland Star, 23 May 1938, P10
[xxvi] Parachutist Killed. Press, 4 July 1938, P10
[xxvii] Parachute Tragedy. Evening Star, 4 July 1938, P7
[xxviii] Parachutist Killed. Press, 4 July 1938, P10